Science-based targets have a vital role to play in creating much better sustainability metrics, but they have their limitations too. The key is to measure the things that really add value and to use the right language, argues Diageo’s David Croft.
Caroline Carson: Diageo has announced 20 new sustainability and responsibility targets to be achieved by 2020. Can you tell us more about the strategy?
David Croft: The strategy is around how Diageo progresses in 2020 and beyond. We are looking at three key areas – alcohol in society, the communities where we operate, and the environment. The targets aim to act upon our most material issues.
Our strategy has to focus on alcohol – perhaps not usually a frontline sustainability topic, but our approach is very holistic. We take a ‘grain to glass’ approach: thinking through the impact of our supply networks on their communities.
In terms of implementation, there is a much greater focus on impact. We’re looking at what we do and what effect it is having on us and on wider policy goals – the Sustainable Development Goals, for example.
Business cannot operate in isolation. The issues we’re trying to tackle need a huge coalition of the willing. As a leading organisation in our sector, we can help support and strengthen that coalition.
CC: Do you think the evolution of science-based targets has helped?
DC: Science-based activity has created metrics that weren’t there before. On the environmental side it works fairly well, but some of the broader issues we face are still hard to quantify. We need pragmatism as well as metrics. Without it you spend a lot of time and resource measuring impacts that don’t necessarily add value.
CC: Were you able to incorporate these metrics in deciding your strategy and targets?
DC: Being able to measure has certainly played a role in setting targets, but it was not the only lens. For me, it starts with deciding the most material issues we face. If we can’t measure everything to the level we’d like – as with socioeconomic metrics – we try to create frameworks to help that happen. Science-based activity around the environment has been very helpful, particularly during our recent significant growth. It helps us measure how well we are achieving our targets in a wider context.
Although the science-based activity is still developing, it generates confidence that our approach is really relevant to the risks the world faces.
Historically, not having science-based targets meant organisations could remain isolated – and that’s not the strongest way forward.
CC: Are there other material issues to which you apply a science or context based approach other than carbon?
DC: We would certainly consider it. The environmental data is years ahead of the social data. I think the social side will catch up, but it remains challenging to get hold of the detailed data on health or on livelihoods needed for a truly science-based approach.
CC: Alcohol in society is one of your key sustainability focus areas. Does science play a role here too?
DC: Absolutely. We are committed to delivering the Beer, Wine and Spirits Producers’ Commitments1. Last year we had about 330 individual projects to manage across a range of areas. But the really key question is: which, or which facets, of these programmes are most effective?
Bizarrely, the sustainability movement has been slow to apply impact measurements around socio-economic issues. Yet that’s exactly what we’d do with any other business issue. It doesn’t make sense but, previously, the data just hasn’t been available.
CC: Diageo is on the advisory board for the Science Based Targets (SBT) Initiative. How did this come about?
DC: We’ve been involved from the start because we wanted to put this data-driven approach alongside the pragmatic and materiality approaches already there.
SBT provides suggestions and guidance. Along with others on the advisory board, we bring an ability to translate the ‘white coat theory’ into practical approaches for business.
Because there’s a danger. If detail gets too convoluted, it can switch an audience off. So part of our role is thinking about how guidance might be couched in future to create and enable the desired impact.
CC: Do you have any advice for other organisations looking to adopt a more science-based approach?
DC: My start point is – let’s not create an industry around science-based targets. We need to be pragmatic or we’ll spend a lot of time and resource that could dilute the actual activity itself. SBT is hugely valuable in helping us focus on the right areas. It also enables that coalition of the willing to move consistently in a shared direction, with the right degree of scale to tackle these really big issues.
CC: What communication challenges have you encountered?
DC: Well it can be a double-edged sword. But I think the data helps you track progress and communicate better. Another danger is the language. It is not always accessible and it’s important to use language that connects with different audiences – not everybody is a scientist.
CC: Is this something that can be resolved through dialogue or communications?
DC: I think it’s about dialogue, and making certain that a broad stakeholder group feeds into how targets are developed and communicated.
It irritates me when a business says ‘the science tells me A+B = C’ with a perfectly logical rationale that may be completely devoid of any emotion. When consumers don’t agree with that logic, the response is often: ‘We’ll just have to educate consumers’. That feels terribly patronising.
There are wider contexts that motivate people and change. If education was all that is needed, everybody would have been using low-energy light bulbs way before policy required it. And that wasn’t the case, was it?
This article is a part of Salterbaxter MSLGROUP‘s Directions 2015: The Rise of Science report. Directions, now in its fifteenth year, is widely viewed as the leading annual publication on trends in sustainability and communications.